You’re almost done finals, and this is the last post of the term, so I thought I’d make it a good one. Your grades don’t matter. That’s not strictly true, but it makes for a really good title. But they don’t matter as much as you think they do. Not for grants, and not for grad school. There are other things that matter a lot more. Before this sends you into an existential crisis, let me explain. 

There are thresholds when grades matter. Passing, for instance. You have to keep your average above some number in order to stay in. Drop below, and you’re out. Another threshold is Honours. If you want to get an Honours degree, which is the only way into grad school or teacher’s college, then you have to keep your average above 75 or 80. So your grades do matter, to a point. But the difference between a 70 and an 80 is much larger than the difference between an 80 and a 90. This is especially true for graduate school and grant applications.

Once you graduate, no one will care whether you got an 85 or a 90 in Latin. Or a 75, for that matter. The question they’ll ask about your degree is “What did you study?” Or in the case of a Master’s degree, “Do you have one?” That’s it. Those extra hours you slaved on your papers for two more percent will fall by the wayside. I’m not saying don’t work hard. Those thresholds above are real, and they’re not all easy to get over, but if you’re over the ones you need to be, consider finding other ways to spend your time that will benefit you more. Here are some things you can do instead of spending those extra 20 hours on that paper that will still help you get into grad school, get a job, or get that grant or scholarship you’re after.

1. Get Involved

Get involved on campus or in the community. Find something you’re interested in, and volunteer your time. There’s a ton of opportunities here. You’ll meet new people, face interesting challenges, and learn a lot of things that you would never learn from a lecture. It’s also a chance to apply your skills. I know what you’re thinking, “How does the ability to write history papers transfer over into the real world?” I asked the same question. Then I started writing profiles and promo pieces for charities, and doing research for them on history and event ideas. Alternately, find a position where you don’t have any skills, and learn some. Get involved in CMS, and develop leadership and planning skills. You’re in university, so take the opportunity to broaden your horizons. When you’re applying to graduate schools or for jobs, they’re going to see this extra experience and count it. They’ll never see your two percent.

2. Write

Write a blog, write a diary, write your own separate research papers, or write a story. I know, I know, you do a lot of writing already. But that’s academic writing, and if you’re not careful, it can become the cold, colourless product of an atrophied imagination. The summer before I started my MA, I began blogging. By the time I was working on my thesis, I was writing seven posts a week and loving it. Writing for fun will make your other writing more interesting, both for you and for your reader. You’ll also get better at it. If you’re applying to grad school, you’re going to need to write a statement of interest, as well as talk about the kind of research you want to do and why it’s important. For grants, you’ll need the same kind of proposals. This means being able to write clearly and tightly, but also means you have to be able to hold your reader’s interest past the first paragraph. Your prof has to grade your paper. The reviewers don’t have to look at your whole application.No matter what discipline you’re in, you need to be able to communicate clearly and effectively.

3. Learn

Learn a new skill. Either take the time to pick it up yourself, through practice and dedication, or go to workshops. I recommend both. There are plenty of great workshops on campus that’ll only take a few hours of your time, and will teach you something new that you can apply. Check out OHD, the Career Action Centre, or the Student Success Office for ideas. Go to some lectures, and hear scholars from other fields talk, or go to some local conferences, like Ignite or TEDxWaterloo. You’re going to learn things that are outside your experience, and probably hear a bunch of things that you don’t even understand. Which is awesome, because that’s what university is for. Don’t put these things off, or feel guilty about them. if they’re only costing you your two percent, they’re worth it. That business owner you met after you did your first talk at Ignite, who really liked the way you handled yourself on your topic? Doesn’t give a damn about your two percent.

4. Make Something

Build something of your own. Even if it fails. In fact, I encourage you to fail. In the past year I’ve started five blogs, a podcast, two video series, four D&D games, two charity events, a community outreach group, and two bands. One of those blogs, the podcast, the video stuff, three of the D&D games, one of the bands, one of the charity events, and the community outreach group are all dead or defunct now. That’s just under half. You don’t have to do all that, in fact, I encourage you not to, because I got pretty burnt out for a while. I’m kind of a crazy person. But do something. Make something that’s yours, whether it’s a project, a blog, a band, or an event. Something you can point to and say, “I did that.” Because it’ll keep you sane (me notwithstanding), and when people in interviews and applications ask you what you do, you can point to it and say “I did that.” Even if it fails, you can learn from it and know what to do better next time. People care about your ambition and your ability to adapt. they don’t care about your two percent.

I know what you’re thinking. Your profs won’t be happy with this. They want you to work a hundred percent on your assignments. I will tell now tell you a terrifying secret.

No, they don’t.

They want you to succeed, not just academically, but at anything. Their role isn’t just to lecture at the front of your class and pile scantron sheets into the mouth of some hellish difference engine. Their job is to prepare you for life outside the walls, to enrich your aspirations and expand your opportunities. It’s true that when they’re writing reference letter for your grad school application, they’re going to talk about your grades. But that’s not what they want to talk about. Everyone who’s even in the running for grad school has good grades. the real question, the real meat of those letters, comes from all of the other things they do. Are they involved? Do they care about other students? What are their ambitions, and what do they do? Everything you do from the four things above gives your professors something of value to say, something they can really get excited about (except probably the D&D games). At the cost of what? Two percent? Five percent? It’s not worth it.

Stop worrying so much about your grades. No one else does. You’re more than a number, you’re a star. Shine. See you next term.

Jim Tigwell believes in you. That is all. 

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